A selection of front pages displaying the skinny versus baggy pants row.
"I just don’t like uniforms and the way they look,” said an eighth-grader. “When you wear a uniform, you can’t be yourself. You don’t have your own personality,” she told a local talk-radio station.

“They chase us away and refuse us access to learning because of our skinny pants,” said a Grade 7 pupil.

“They are forcing us to dress the way they want, yet we also want to have a say in how we look,” he told the radio station.

Explaining to listeners that he was dressed in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt, he said he wanted to choose what he wore, because uniforms were too restrictive.

As a parent of school-age children and a member of the Gauteng executive council, I have followed the recent discussion about school uniforms prompted by pupils who boycotted classes and demanded to be allowed to wear skinny pants instead of the common grey cut on Fridays.

The latest debate was not the first and last. There have been many such debates before and all them ended the same way.

There has always been a common thread to this discussion. How do we find common ground? How do we give our kids a sense that they belong? Uniforms. How do we prevent schools turning into fashion shows? How do we stop the teasing when a child can’t keep up with the fashionistas? Uniforms.

I understand that school dress codes and mandated school uniforms may seem like godsends to parents who are attempting to negotiate the treacherous shoals of adolescent culture and identity formation. Few things in life are as clear as adolescents’ seemingly innate drive to assert their independent judgement of social affairs. It is not uncommon for middle- and high-school-age youth to challenge various manifestations of authority and openly voice their opinions about the justice of the situations they encounter, at home and at school.

Few issues in these delicately negotiated years are likely to generate more heated interactions than clothing styles, language use, personal adornments, grooming and peer-group behaviours.

I agree, and I know most South Africans agree, that freedom of speech gives people the right to express themselves in ways other than speech. This includes the right to wear what they want.

But should these rights be given to schoolchildren? And should these rights include the right for pupils to wear anything they choose?

Many public and private schools in Gauteng have had uniform and dress code policies for years. These policies are adopted by schools governing bodies (SGBs) in consultation with parents and educators.

SGBs know that allowing parents to choose the colours and styles for individual schools within reasonable parameters helps make those parents active participants in school affairs and builds school spirit among the pupils. Each school may authorise its own personal colour. The policy is very detailed.

The truth is that most pupils love uniforms. On the first day of class, uniform compliance is 100%. Students feel like they belong, and they are eager to learn. You can see this in their smiles.

Uniforms can be useful in schools. They can help foster a sense of group belonging and school pride.

Uniforms build student self-esteem by eliminating the distraction of fashion competitiveness that is common in schools. Eliminating clothing competitiveness saves parents money and aggravation. Youngsters focus more on learning, which is the main reason for going to school.

Take away the designer tags and off-beat individual styles in kids’ school clothes, and what do you get?

More often than one might guess, the answer is higher test scores, fewer discipline problems - and happier parents.

With advantages like that, it’s no surprise that SGBS and parents prefer school uniforms. It is clear that uniforms help eliminate distractions. Parents embrace uniforms because they know what their child must wear to class and they won’t be spending as much money on clothes.

Teachers have embraced them because studies show a uniform look cuts down on discipline problems and increases learning opportunities. Parent-teacher organisations and SGBs embrace uniforms too. A typical scenario in any township, suburban or village school looks like this: boys wear navy blue or grey pants or knee-length shorts. The girls’ attire is jumpers, skirts or shorts. No jeans. Collared polo or buttoned-down shirts and turtlenecks create less complexity. From time immemorial, uniforms have been touted as a measure that reduces peer pressure, increases safety, improves grades and raises self-esteem.

Uniforms are a sensible idea and an effective way to help all children learn, setting high standards of behaviour and a calm classroom atmosphere.

In theory, we’re preparing these kids to enter the work force and seek careers. Uniforms provide a sense of camaraderie and a business-like attitude in class.

Kids don’t go to school worried about what to wear, or anxious whether or not their clothes are cool. Instead, all they have to concentrate on is doing well in class. That should be the main focus of any school. Indeed, uniforms eliminate the “fashion show” in school and are much cheaper than fashionable clothes.

We know that at some schools in gang-ravaged areas, communities have made school uniforms an important part of an overall programme to improve school safety and discipline. After all, there have been instances when students resorted to violence and theft simply to obtain designer clothes and fancy sneakers. In some areas, we have heard how clothing items worn at school, bearing special colours or insignias, are used to identify gang membership or instil fear among students and teachers alike.

If uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline and foster a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that enforce uniforms.

Indeed, uniforms prepare pupils for the world of work, where employers are likely to require them to adhere to an appropriate dress code. School uniforms are a good way of making sure all children are seen and treated equally.

* Lesufi is Gauteng MEC for Education. Follow him on @Lesufi and on Facebook.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent